Archive for The Moonflower Vine

Now In E-book: The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton

Posted in Browse on By, Literature, Now in E-Book with tags , , on September 12, 2012 by JE Cornett

One of the best things about e-books is one of the worst things about e-books — they make it so easy to find books that have long been out of print or hard to find. Bad news for used booksellers and bookstores. Bad news for me, who loves to browse through shelves of raggedy paperbacks and warped hardbacks. Good news for those readers who do not necessarily like that used book smell, and good news for books whose reputations have suffered for the fact that they’ve only sporadically been in print since their initial publication — books like Jetta Carelton’s nearly-forgotten masterpieces, The Moonflower Vine.

The Moonflower Vine  has experienced a renaissance in the past few years, all of a sudden the darling of critics and authors alike, but when I read about the book on The Neglected Books Page, it had been out of print for years. Despite being a Literary Guild selection and chosen for inclusion in that most American of institutions, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books series, The Moonflower Vine and author Jetta Carleton were all but forgotten within several years of the book’s 1962 publication.  It took me months to track down a copy of the book on Amazon, and when I did, it looked almost as pitiful as the copy in the picture above. It was well worth the wait and the fear that the book would fall apart in my hands; The Moonflower Vine is one of my favorite books, and one that deserves the bigger audience it’s likely to find now that it’s back in print, a critical success (for a second time) and available in e-book.

Here’s a synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:

On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters. Jessica will break their hearts. Leonie will fall in love with the wrong man. Mary Jo will escape to New York. And wild child Mathy’s fate will be the family’s greatest tragedy. Over the decades they will love, deceive, comfort, forgive—and, ultimately, they will come to cherish all the more fiercely the bonds of love that hold the family together.

This is a pitiful synopsis, really, making the book sound like Edna Ferber meets Danielle Steele. Carelton’s prose style is timeless, descriptive yet uncluttered, and the book is more about how our perceptions of our family breed and create family secrets than the secrets themselves.

To really get a feel for the book, here’s an excerpt:

My sisters and I used to visit them [parents] on the farm. We came each summer… these visits were like income tax, an annual inconvenience… But old as we were, our parents were still the government. They levied the tribute, and we paid it… It was a time of placid unreality. The lives we lived outside were suspended, the affairs of the world forgotten and our common blood remembered…

The sun trickled down through the oak leaves. Away off in the woods a cardinal told us what a handsome bird he was. “Pretty-bird, pretty-bird!” he said over and over. Jessica sat on a blue towel, hugging her knees… She looked like Boucher’s Diana or a bather by Renoir. But she would have laughed if I’d told her, and said Boo-shay didn’t know boo-cat, or something to that effect. Jessica was not about to pretend she was anything but what showed up in clothes–a plain, middle-aged woman, rather dowdy and in need of a girdle.

I looked at my other sister, sitting in the sunlight, brown and glossy as a warm brown egg. She was the one with enviable pigment, a dark-skinned blonde whom sunlight loved… No woman who looked like that, I thought, deserved the nature of Carry Nation. But Leonie’s was something like that. More than the rest of us, Leonie bore the vestigial burning passed down from our forebears, a hellfire breed that preached a trail through Indiana and Kentucky… She had this burning, this ax of God. But hers was a hard way, like theirs, and her defeats were many.

It’s not gilding the lily to say that The Moonflower Vine deserves as special a place in American literature as similar books by John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis or William Faulker (I’d be willing to make the argument that The Moonflower Vine is better than almost anything by Faulkner). The unfortunate timing of the book’s publication, when family dramas were falling out of fashion in the literary world, plus the fact that Carleton wrote only one more book, the less-inspired Claire de Lune, made the The Moonflower Vine the stepchild of mid-century American literature.

That e-books have given books like The Moonflower Vine a second chance at finding a wider audience is one of the best aspects of the format. And it’s beautiful, when you think of it, that a book that includes the following would have a revival in an electronic format:

“I wish Mama and Dad would put in some plumbing,” said Leonie. “Wouldn’t you think they’d want it?”

“Well I don’t know,” said Jessica. “They’ve been without it seventy years, I guess they don’t miss it.”

“They could get used to it.”

Go on, now, and buy a copy of The Moonflower Vine in whatever form you prefer.